Harriet Ann Boomer: London’s Social Philanthropy Scene and Early Feminism

For today’s blog post I want to put a spotlight on one of our “Women of Woodland” – someone who was often called a pushy, nosy “old busybody,” strong-willed and forceful, assertive, and “unwomanly” – in other words, my kind of person!

Her name was Harriet Ann (Mills) Boomer, and she is now widely considered to be one of London’s early social activists. She was born on July 10, 1835  in England and lived through Confederation in London, Ontario. Harriet’s father died during her youth, and her widowed mother began to take on students as an educator in order to support herself and her two daughters – which is likely where Harriet learned some of her stubborn independence.

In 1851, Harriet’s mother Ann was offered the position of Principal of St. Cross School in Red River, Manitoba, which is how the family came to Canada. She later became an educator at Queen’s College in England. Harriet married her first husband, Alfred Roche (a geologist) in 1858, after meeting him in England. They were together almost 20 years before Alfred passed away while he was on a business trip, along with Harriet, to South Africa (where he owned shares in the mines).

Suddenly a young widow, as her mother had been, Harriet had to find some way to support herself. She ended up writing a (quite successful) memoir of her travels to South Africa, entitled: On trek in the Transvaal: or, over berg and veldt in South Africa (London, 1878).

Soon after Alfred’s death, Harriet decided to once again settle in London, Ontario, where she married Rev. Michael Boomer – the principal of Huron College at the time – in 1878. (*Interesting fact – our research in the Lee family (see Sunny’s blog post) tells us that Rev. Boomer was the one to perform the marriage ceremony for the Lees in 1856!) Rev. Boomer passed away in 1888, but Harriet’s work in the city of London was just beginning.

In 1888, Harriet was a big part of the establishment of the London Convalescent Home. A few years later, she attended the founding meeting of the National Council of Women in Canada, which would become her main focus for the next few years, as she took it upon herself to found the London branch. She served as president of the London Council from 1897 to 1920 – the longest term of any council president. She was also the vice-president of the Ontario branch of the council, and attending all of the national meetings, often presenting papers. As she began to be known for her advocacy work, she travelled to England in 1899 to attend the International Congress of Women.

Harriet likely used some of the insights she gained from these meetings to further her involvement in the London community. Proper health care for women and children was her main goal, and that of the London council. It is no surprise that, in 1898, Harriet was responsible for securing most of the funding to build the children’s wing at Victoria Hospital. She also played a leading role establishing the London branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses, and became president of the board. In 1900, Harried also established London’s first Red Cross Society to send aid to soldiers stationed in South Africa during the Boer War (*interesting note: Archibald Becher, from the Becher Brothers post, was one of these soldiers!) The society lasted into wartime, and raised almost $1 million for efforts in the First World War.

She was also active with the Canadian Club, the Mothers’ Union, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Women’s Christian Association.

While these accomplishments were incredible on their own, Harriet’s main focus was education. She believed firmly in the importance of educating women (one of the main tenets of early feminist movements) and felt there should be more opportunities for women worldwide. There was a need, she maintained in the National Council’s annual report, “to cultivate more and more of the business faculty of which men are supposed to have a monopoly, but of which we women are not bereft.”

Harriet felt that the study of domestic science and business for women was vital to this goal. She also thought that all young men should be trained in technical classes. As the London school board did not have any of these classes (especially those for young women) at the time, Harriet campaigned for them to introduce it – her lobbying was successful in 1905. This is perhaps what lead her to seek out a position on London’s school board, which was, at the time, mostly comprised of men.

Early 19th century feminists believed that women needed to be more involved in education – both as educators and students – as a lot of inequality stemmed from the difference in skill and knowledge provided to boys and girls at young ages. They also believe that it was important to have women on school boards because they, as maternal figures, were the natural educators of children (a sentiment that contemporary feminists may well dispute!)

Harriet logically pointed out to the London board that women had been successful in charitable works and served on boards elsewhere – therefore, it did not make sense to bar her from a position based on her sex. Thus, in 1898 she was appointed as London’s first female trustee; during her three-year term she “learnt woman’s hardest lesson – how to be silent.” It is not known how “successful” she was in that regard, but she was unfortunately not reappointed after her term, and the school board did not have another female trustee until 1919.

She died at age 85 in the year 1921, and she was buried in Woodland Cemetery next to her late husband Rev. Boomer. Her gravestone is interesting to me precisely because it stands on its own – most women at that time were simply furnished an inscription on their gravestone as the “wife of” the more elaborate name above theirs. Harriet got her own gravestone, just as intricate as her husband’s.

Boomer1.jpg

In her obituaries in the paper, she was called “London’s most philanthropic and patriotic worker” (London Free Press) and was said to have been able to face all situations “with an indomitable courage, [and] unfailing laughter that kept youth ever bright in her heart.” This praise exists in contradiction with the many real enemies that she made by being forceful and assertive in an era where women were not meant to be heard in the public sphere.

The site of Harriet’s home was demolished to make way for H. B. Beal Technical school in 1916: a school that took as its heart the very skills and values Harriet had fought for during her life. A plaque memorializing her and her endless work hangs in Beal today, by the auditorium entrance.

BoomerPlaque

As a student of feminist theory, it is interesting for me to research London’s early activists. The increased presence and autonomy of women that Harriet encouraged through her practice and work has lived on even as cultural values shift, and from 150 years in the future, it seems like we are well on our way to creating a society that Harriet would be proud of (though I am sure she would say that we have our work cut out for us)!

– Levi

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